Restoration Retrospective and Prospective


By Michael Handford

A New Canal Age

We are in a new canal age.  The last fifty years have seen an astonishing change in both public and political perceptions of inland waterways.  Restoration is no longer some lunatic ideal but one accepted as obvious and desirable by the man or woman in the street.  If you need any proof of this go to the centre of Birmingham or Leeds where the new developments of pubs, nightclubs and restaurants face the canal not back on to it.  Properties facing the canal fetch a premium of around 20% compared with identical properties that do not.


Money has not really been a problem.  The costs of restoration escalate with health and safety requirements and the greater difficulty of later canal schemes.  At the same time we have had manpower Services, Heritage Lottery, Regional Development Agencies, European Union money and others.  The ease of accessing money has waxed and waned.  Nevertheless I remain to hear if any well-managed, well-respected, well-planned scheme held up for lack of money.  Of course schemes need to fight for money and progress here can be maddeningly slow.  But it is progress even so.


So what has been achieved?


First generation restorations like the Kennet and Avon Canal have been completed.  Here the entire track remained in the same ownership and each obstacle was manageable with engineering solutions.  Even the formidable Caen Hill flight of locks at Devises is only one lock to restore twenty nine times.  Given that, and given money from Heritage Lottery, the restoration was simple and straightforward when compared to later schemes.


The second generation of restorations was more difficult.  Schemes like the Forth and Clyde, Union, Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canal had the benefit of essentially single ownership (apart from the Falkirk flight of locks) and the disadvantage of major obstacles.  In the case of the Rochdale Canal this involved moving a supermarket, repositioning a motorway and nearly two miles of concrete infill.  The Huddersfield Canal had Stanledge Tunnel and the Bates factory.  Nevertheless, given access to funding and engineering expertise, solutions were found and restorations completed.  The Montgomery Canal is also in this category and restoration proceeds – slowly but the important fact is that it does proceed.


The third generation of schemes is with us now.  Restorations like the Cotswold Canals have part of the track intact and part of it lost.  Part is held in one ownership (The Company of Proprietors of the Stroudwater Navigation) and part (mostly the Thames and Severn eastern side) is in multiple ownership.  So the issues to be resolved include repurchasing and rebuilding lost sections of canal.  Here again £25 million sourced from Heritage Lottery Funds, Regional Development Agency and others is now restoring the canals from Stonehouse on the Stroudwater Canal to Brimscombe on the Themes and Severn.  The next objective will be to restore the Stroudwater Canal from Saul to Stonehouse, thereby linking the canals to the national network.


The fourth generation of restorations is also with us.  Examples include the Wey and Arun and the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canals.  Here there are issues of both tracks which are not intact and multiple ownership.  This is not entirely true for the Ledbury to Hereford length of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire but the essential problems of reassembling land ownership remain.  Despite these substantial issues restoration in both cases proceeds with impressive expertise and achievement.  Big money has not arrived yet though the Wey and Arun Canal Trust in particular are skilled at raising eye watering sums of money from volunteers and other sources.


What could happen as these schemes approach completion?  I suspect the fifth generation of restorations will follow.  This could include restoration and completion (for some were not completed) of the Kington, Leominster and Stourport: the Chard: the Dorset and Somerset; the Bude; and other canals.  Here there are formidable obstacles – virtually no intact track, multiple ownership.  Yet even here each obstacle could be solvable with expertise and money.  The Bude Canal has a restoration trust and an active members society.  The others, including the Salisbury and Southampton Canal and the Itchen Navigation, do not. 

What does the future hold?


Is there a sixth generation to come?  I suspect there is.  These are most likely to be new canals linking existing destination waterways that are connected with the national system at only one end.  So we may see new canals linking the Oakham and Stanford, the Grantham and Sleaford, the Cambridge to Lee and Stort, the Broads and the eastern waterways, Gloucester and Berkeley Canal to Bristol, Cranford to Chesterfield and (via the Peak Forest Tramroad) to Whaley Bridge in the Peak Forest, Ashby to the Trent and Mersey and/or to the Charnwood Forest, Keilder Water to Ripon, Newtown on the Montgomery to the Kington Leominster and Storuport, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal at Hereford to Brecon on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal and others.


Is this impractical?  Go back I ask you and remember the totally impractical. Enormously difficult and expensive, pointless proposals to restore the Kennet and Aran Canal in the 1950s.  We have made the future in the form we wanted.  The fact that there are first and second generations of schemes completed and third and fourth generations taking place speaks for itself.  If you do not believe this is possible you need to explain why we can put men on the moon but not restore the fifth and build the sixth generation.

This page was added by Henry Beaumont on 07/09/2010.

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